Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Irish War of Independence and the IRA, 1916-1921

The development towards guerilla warfare depended on a relatively small number of Volunteers concentrated in the Southwest. These local Volunteer brigades increased their activity from 1919 to 1920.

Military operations remained extremely limited during 1919, although raids for arms began to occur regularly. A shortage of arms curtailed military engagements. In the country ownership of a rifle was often a condition prerequisite to joining a serious operation, and ownership of a revolver was revered in Dublin.-&ldquoAs a Company, we were very poorly armed. If a fellow had a bloody old .45 at that time he was something like Napoleon.

As a result, obtaining arms was an ongoing obsession. Those who had weapons were most likely to be able to join attacks on British forces. They were also usually the first to join a Flying Column at the end of 1920. The situation in the country was continuously worsening. In June, the Freeman's Journal described the Dublin quays as 'jammed with tanks, armoured cars, guns, motor lorries and thousands of troops, as if the port was a base of formidable expeditionary force'. The British army in Ireland was now costing half the total cost of maintaining the army throughout the empire. In September 1919 the Dail was banned by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord French. This only served to make it easier for the Volunteers to carry out attacks, as their politicians no longer had a public platform from which to restrain them. And it helped Eamon de Valera's campaign in America, where he was touring to highlight British injustices in Ireland and drum up support for a republic.

In the wake of Volunteer GHQ's endorsement of open attacks on the Crown Forces, confrontation escalated in 1920. A GHQ policy document proclaimed the smashing of all enemy communications as the main priority. In the following months, attacks on police barracks became particularly widespread in the South with the acquisition of rifles as its main objective. As a result many isolated undefensible police posts were evacuated throughout the country. This enabled Sinn Fein and the Volunteers, often one and the same outside Dublin, to take over civil control in these areas. Mass burning of courthouses and evacuated barracks, and raiding of tax offices was ordered by GHQ for Easter 1920. The government's reaction to the attacks increasingly became coercive, which resulted in the IRA men becoming more determined.

A successful barracks attack became less and less feasible in the course of 1920. Undefensible posts had been abandoned and protection of most other barracks was reinforced. This led to Volunteers attacking police and military targets in a hit-and-run nature. In response to the rising violence, the British government introduced the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act. This Act, passed 9th August 1920, allowed for internment and court-martial of civilians. This led to the arrest of a large number of Volunteer-officers. As a result of police activity, GHQ ordered all officers everywhere to sleep away from home and to appoint deputies to replace them in case of their arrest. As a result most officers and active men who were not yet on the run, joined the small number of activists that had already left home.

The development towards guerilla warfare in Ireland was still precarious. The small groups of fighting men on the run were extremely vulnerable. Their success could make or break the activity of the Volunteers in a particular district- losing them often meant the end of operations. However, public support for the IRA was growing. The arrival of the Black and Tans and the brutality of their tactics drove many to support the Volunteers. The execution of an 18-yr-old medical student, Kevin Barry, for killing a British soldier, and the arrest and subsequent death after hunger strike of the Lord Mayor of Cork, were two more events that made the British position in Ireland ever more untenable.

The relationship between the Volunteers and Dail Eireann, the Irish Parliament, was quite ambiguous. The Volunteer Convention in 1919 formally recognised the Minister for Defence, Cathal Brugha, as the leader of the Volunteers. The Volunteers at this point became the national army with the title of the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The Volunteers recognised the Dail as their parliament, and Eamon de Valera as their president, but many IRA men had little time for the politicians. The Dail was slow to back a military campaign and was less than wholehearted in its support for the IRA. Many IRA operations were carried out without official sanction from the Dail, although they were usually sanctioned by the Volunteers GHQ, by men such as Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy. A further complication was the position of the IRB in Ireland. Many IRA men were also members of the secret IRB. By 1919 Michael Collins was President of the Supreme Council of the IRB, so effectively these men were sworn to obey his orders. This potential conflict of interest certainly worried the Minister for Defence, Cathal Brugha, who believed that they should see him as their ultimate commander. In reality, the IRA men looked to the Volunteers GHQ and to their local brigade commanders, rather than to Brugha and the Dail. However, they always recognised that the Dail had the ultimate power, but as it was up in Dublin it didn't affect their day to day running of the war.

The Flying Column

We wanted full-time soldiers who were prepared to fight by day or night, ready for any adventure. They would constitute a mobile force capable of striking at a given moment in one district and on the next day springing a surprise thirty miles away… At long last we convinced the Headquarters-staff of the desirability of such a scheme. The flying columns were organised and they bore the brunt of the war during the next twelve months.

Dan Breen

The first flying columns spread spontaneously in active areas during the summer of 1920. They consisted of the Volunteers who had been forced to go on the run due to their prominence in barracks and other attacks. Some of them had grouped together and engaged in joint operations. However, some men on the run simply hung around all day, wasting resources and irritating the locals. At a meeting of the leadership of the Volunteers in June 1920 this problem was discussed and the idea of a Flying Column was developed-

Dick Mulcahy was not too keen on the idea, but Michael Collins was very keen on it: 'We'll have to get these bloody fellows doing something,' said Collins referring to the men on the run. (At that time and for some time later, they were a bloody nuisance, for they lounged around, slept late, ate peoples food and did now work for the Company or Battalion in which they happened to be.)

The provincial flying column generally consisted of a small band of full-time fighting men. A training camp would prepare the men, whose number could range from a dozen to over a hundred in Tipperary and Cork. Most of the columns' time was spent roaming around evading the police. The local people provided the columns with supplies and entertainment in the form of music and dance. Some areas were more hospitable than others, making the column members feel at home. The columns' inclination to stay in only a few safe areas was a heavy burden on the locals. The presence of the column in their neighbourhood implicated them in its actions, which meant risking the wrath of the Crown Forces. To protect the columns from approaching enemies, warning systems using flags, fires and empty bottles were successfully used, particularly in Tipperary. Tom Barry describes the core ambition of Flying Columns set up in West Cork-

Strange as it may seem, it was accepted in West Cork that the paramount objective of any Flying Column, in the circumstances then prevailing, should be, not to fight, but to continue to exist. The very existence of such a column of armed men, even if it never struck a blow, was a continuous challenge to the enemy and forced him to maintain large garrisons to meet the threatened onslaught on his military forces, and for the security of his civil administration. Such a Column moving around must seriously affect the morale of garrisons, for one day it would surely strike…

Involvement in the fighting deeply affected the members of the columns and its equivalent in Dublin, the ASU (Active Service Unit). After killing some British intelligence-officers one of the future members of the Dublin ASU was greatly affected-

&ldquoCharlie Dalton was very nervous. We went into the Capitol [a church] to ease his mind. […] Charlie Dalton couldn't sleep that night of Bloody Sunday. He thought he could hear the gurgling of the Officer's blood and he kept awake in fright until we told him a tap was running somewhere.

A problem that extended to Volunteers in all areas was the lack of arms and ammunition. After the Flying Columns had started, bringing with them the constant likelihood of open conflict, the lack of ammunition became particularly acute. If a column was under-armed and forced to engage with British troops in the open it would be sluaghtered. Shortages led to disputes over arms. Another serious consequence of the lack of arms was an almost complete absence of firing experience among the men involved in operations. This inexerience led to several fatal accidents and also the failure of several ambushes.

The arms that could be bought from GHQ were totally insufficient to equip all willing men. Arms could not be bought openly, as many restrictions had been put on the sale, importation and ownership s of weapons since the beginning of the Great War. To supplement the shortages, weaponry was bought or forced from soldiers and policemen throughout the struggle. British soldiers who were stationed in Ireland for a short period were often willing to sell equipment to supplement their pay. Another major source of arms and ammunition was found abroad. GHQ as well as some county units sent men to England and even to Germany to obtain weaponry.

Despite all these efforts, there was always insufficient material to provide all IRA units. Supply of ammunition was so short that many units manufactured it themselves. Most country units made buckshot to fill shotgun cartridges. In Dublin, large .303 rifles ammunition was cut down to fit into revolvers-

We were using .303 stuff, which had been cut down but it was not serviceable. It had split in Jimmy Maginnis's revolver in his hand.

Another tedious job was the reloading of faulty ammunition that was bought from British military. After the authorities discovered that the IRA bought ammunition they tried to sell them exploding ammunition that damaged the gun when fired. When the IRA found a distinguishing mark they took the explosives out of the ammunition and replaced it with gunpowder.

Reprisals and counter-reprisals

We deplore the fact that the authority of the British name in Ireland has come to rest upon military power

– The Times, December 1919

One of the outstanding difficulties in the suppression of political crime in Ireland was the fact that the British nation was not at war with Ireland, whilst Ireland was at war with the British nation, and regulations for the suppression of rebellion were only introduced as the situation went from bad to worse. The Irishman, without any insult being intended, somewhat resembles a dog, and understands firm treatment, but, like the dog, he cannot understand being cajoled with a piece of sugar in one hand whilst he receives a beating from a stick in the other.

– 'O', the head of British intelligence in Ireland

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